The prospect of hundreds of soldiers refusing to obey orders to evacuate military bases in the West Bank poses a serious problem for Israel.
Not only could the development affect redeployment plans by the Israel Defense Force, it could also bring to the fore potential conflicts between the demands of the state and the dictates of religion.
The possibility of such resistance became all the more plausible this week after a group of rabbis instructed soldiers to resist any attempts to evacuate military bases as part of the Israeli army’s impending redeployment in the West Bank.
Seven rabbis belonging to the Council of Religious Zionist Rabbis, led by former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, issued their ruling Wednesday.
The rabbinic ruling drew sharp criticism from Israel’s political and military leaders including many in the opposition.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin accused the rabbis of attempting to turn Israel into a “banana republic.”
The rabbis’ ruling came in response to questions posed recently by hesder soldiers — soldiers who combine yeshiva studies with military service — as well as by Orthodox soldiers who reside in the territories.
The questioned whether they should obey army orders calling for an evacuation.
The questions surfaced as Israeli and Palestinian officials appeared to move closer toward concluding an agreement for implementing the next phase of Palestinian self-rule.
The two sides are hammering out an agreement that would extend self-rule in the West Bank with a partial redeployment of Israeli forces in the West Bank and Palestinian elections.
After meeting for three hours at Shapira’s home to discuss the issue, the rabbis presented the students with an unequivocal reply:
The evacuation of military bases in the West Bank that would be handed over to non-Jews would contravene the law of the Torah and therefore must be resisted, including by soldiers who serve at these bases, they ruled.
Rabbi Chaim Druckman, who heads one of the hesder yeshivas, read the ruling to reporters:
“We determine that there is a Torah ban on evacuating IDF bases and handing them over to gentiles, as it entails the cancellation of a mitzvat aseh (a positive command), and it is also life-endangering and a danger to the existence of the state.
“Therefore, in response to the question to the question, it is clear and simple, that any Jew is forbidden from taking part in any act that will bring about the evacuation of a settlement, a base or a [military] installation.”
“As it was decreed by the [12th century Jewish commentator] Rambam, `Even if the king ordered [one] to disobey the Torah, he should hot be listened to.'”
Under the agreement being worked out between Israel and the Palestinians, some IDF bases would be handed over to the Palestinian Authority, while others would serve as bases for IDF units redeploying from Arab population centers in the West Bank.
This week’s rabbinic ruling pertained only to those bases that would be handed over to the Palestinian Authority.
The ruling drew sharp criticism from Israeli leaders.
“It is inconceivable that the democratically elected government will be restricted by rabbis and their halachic rulings that call upon soldiers to disobey orders,” Rabin said.
“Such a thing never happened in Israel, and it is inconceivable that such a thing can happen in Israel.”
“And I can say that this is one of the gravest things — that a group of rabbis, who are not all the rabbis in the State of Israel, would make such a decision.”
“It is inconceivable that we shall turn Israel into a banana republic,” he added.
Police Minister Moshe Shahal called the ruling illegal and said he had asked Attorney General Michael Ben-Yair to investigate whether the rabbis could be charged with inciting a rebellion.
Shulamit Aloni and Yossi Sarid, government ministers belonging to the dovish Meretz Party, called for the closure of the Hesder Yeshivas.
But Rabin, making a distinction between the rabbis and their soldier-students, said such measures were premature.
Other government ministers said the ruling undermines the foundation of democratic rule in Israel and that it could cause a breakdown in Israeli society.
Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the opposition Likud Party, said he strongly opposed the idea of soldiers refusing to obey orders. But he stopped short of criticizing the rabbis, blaming instead the Rabin government for tearing apart the nation.
A formal Likud statement said what it termed “the bad policy” of the current government must be opposed only by legitimate means.
Among the members of Knesset, only Shaul Gutman of the right-wing Moledet and Hanan Porat of the National Religious Party immediately endorsed the rabbis’ ruling.
The ruling provoked varying responses from Israel’s rabbis, most of whom are well aware of the far-reaching ramifications such rulings could have.
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau called for an immediate freeze of government policies in the West Bank until the fate of the territories is determined by either new elections or by a referendum.
But if, “God forbid,” evacuation orders were given to soldiers, they must be obeyed, he said.
Lau also said he would soon convene the Supreme Rabbinical Council — made up of state-employed rabbis — to discuss the controversial ruling.
But Rabbi Yehuda Amital, who heads the Hesder Yeshiva Har Etzion in Gush Etzion in the West Bank, disagreed with the ruling.
“I have already expressed my and some of my colleagues’ opinion that there is no halachic basis for a ruling that instructs a soldier to refuse to obey orders in this case,” Amital, who leads the moderate Orthodox Maimad movement, told Army Radio.
“As a matter of principle, I believe that ethical and religious imperatives are superior to military orders, but in this case there is no religious or ethical obligation to refuse to obey orders to evacuate a military base.”
Amital, noting that the refusal to obey orders could cause chaos in the army, called the rabbinic ruling a political decision and said he believed that most soldiers would not disobey orders.
Even before this week’s explosive ruling, the possibility of soldiers disobeying orders for religious reasons has haunted the IDF, as well as Israeli society at large.
Last week, the Headquarters for the Struggle to Abolish the Autonomy Plan, a militant settlers organization, issued a set of guidelines on how to resist any Israeli evacuation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
The code, which provided guidelines in case of forced evacuation from the territories by the IDF, was signed by 150 public figures, academics, legal experts and retired military officers, all identified with the settlers movement.
The code dealt primarily with the legal status of evacuation orders, but did not call upon IDF soldiers to disobey those orders. Instead, the code advised soldiers to try and leave their post in case such orders are issued.
Even among the rabbis, the issue has surfaced before. Two years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who is now deceased, issued a halachic ruling forbidding Jews to evacuate any settlement in the biblical land of Israel, which includes Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
Goren, who served as the IDF’s chief rabbi during the 1967 Six-Day officers said any refusal to obey orders would be met with regular IDF disciplinary measures — namely a court-martial followed by a jail sentence.
Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, commander of the Israeli army’s central command, which includes the West Bank, said this week that any soldier who disobeys orders “will end up in prison.”
The IDF follows the instructions of the democratically elected political leadership, he said, adding, “Every soldier, commander and officer must follow military orders.”